Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Winter Blues 

By Elsa Godinho de Matos 

We have all heard of seasonal depression. As the days grow shorter and darker, and the weather changes, many people find that their mood does, too.  

However, it is still a very misunderstood condition. The causes, effects, and treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are not common knowledge. Many people struggle with it on their own, without professional help. 

The syndrome was first described by Dr Norman E. Rosenthal and his colleagues in 1984, as a form of recurrent depression. It usually occurs during the winter, starting in the fall and continuing throughout spring. It usually affects those who live far from the equator, as there are fewer light hours in these areas. In latitudes such as Belgium’s, about 5% of the population struggles with seasonal mood changes. Women are two to four times more likely to suffer from it than men, and this might be linked to premenstrual symptoms. Patients often develop SAD in their late thirties, but some people experience the first symptoms as early as childhood. Less intensive versions of the disorder are also common, and is usually referred to as subsyndromal SAD.  

The most important aspect to remember is that the “winter blues” can affect anyone, even those who are otherwise healthy.  

Like hibernating animals, human beings are seasonal organisms who experience hormonal changes and lower energy levels during the colder and gloomier seasons. As there are fewer light hours and people spend more time indoors due to the cold temperatures, they are less exposed to natural light. What might seem like a small issue has grave consequences on our bodies. For example: being out of phase with our circadian rhythm (our biological clock), excessive production of melatonin (the sleep hormone), or disruption of the production of the hormones that are responsible for mood, sleep, and appetite regulation. Some factors are not directly linked to our body, but can still gravely influence our mood, like the start of school or seasonal unemployment, which can cause high levels of stress. Even simply being aware that it will take over a hundred days until we can truly feel the sun’s warmth is likely to discourage a lot of people. 

The symptoms of SAD are like those of clinical depression, the differentiator being that they are temporary and recurrent. The main symptoms are sadness and low self-esteem, which are linked to social withdrawal and less interest and enjoyment of activities. One common consequence of the syndrome is a lack of energy and hypersomnia, which is usually not solved by caffeine: you just don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Finally, craving carbohydrates and other comfort foods, combined with less physical activity, can cause weight gain.  

There are many ways to reduce these symptoms. Since the main cause of the disorder is a disturbed circadian rhythm, resetting it can improve how you feel. This can be done by taking melatonin pills in the afternoon, as they can be of significant help to achieve a regular sleep schedule. Being exposed to light first thing in the morning is also a good idea. This can be through light therapy (sitting in front of a lamp with a specific intensity) or going on a walk. However, getting more light overall, whether it is in the morning or not, is immensely helpful. That is why many people like to travel to sunny places during the winter holidays. Though this is obviously not a realistic solution for peoples of all economic statuses. Because SAD and clinical depression are so alike, the treatments used for clinical depression, such as antidepressants, therapy, and exercise, can also be used for SAD.  

Lastly, because this is a recurrent condition, it can be useful to plan. This could be scheduling your time to avoid stressful tasks during the wintertime, and planning more time for yourself and what you love. Keeping a diary to keep track of what betters and worsens your mood is also a clever idea.  

Seasonal affective disorder is a serious medical condition which requires treatment. It can affect anyone, whether you are diagnosed or not: there are lighter versions of the disorder, with less intense symptoms. It is simply in our nature to have a change of moods as the days grow darker. 

 So, remember that this feeling is not abnormal, and there are many resources out there to help you. Keep taking care of yourself, especially by going outside, and letting the little bit of still visible sun touch your skin.